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Roadmap to circular plastics in 2050

Alternatives to plastics are often more harmful to the environment • 12 Nov 2020

Plastics offer a unique combination of properties: flexible, cheap, strong and light. But there is also a downside to contemporary plastics. Today sees the publication of a TNO white paper "Don't waste it! Solving the dark side of today's plastics". It draws the conclusion that plastics are indispensable and that the urgency to make plastics 'future proof' as part of the circular transition is enormous.

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"Don't waste it! Solving the dark side of today's plastics"

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Based on a new internally developed PRISM model, TNO expects that, by 2050, 87% of the then expected 1640 kilotons of plastic waste can be recovered.

Hidden costs

Plastics have hidden costs that are not yet reflected in the price: they pollute our environment, cause significant CO2 emissions throughout our lives and threaten our health. These hidden costs for individuals and the Dutch taxpayer are difficult to quantify, but they are substantial.

Because public support for the use of plastic is declining and alternatives to plastic often have a greater negative environmental impact, there is a risk of making the wrong choices. TNO sees "true pricing" as an important solution, i.e. that the cost price of plastics should include hidden costs. This leads to more conscious choices by users and increased pressure to switch to circular plastics.

Solution from four angles

Instead of waste-based reasoning, the TNO model in the white paper is based on the market and market demand, and therefore focuses on value. This has consequences for the further application of prevention, reuse, redesign, different kind of sorting and other logistics, and the use of different recycling technologies.

TNO is fully committed to both technological and socio-economic innovation in this field and has developed eight solution paths that make an accelerated transition to a circular plastics economy feasible. The solutions in the TNO white paper are based on circular value networks, technological innovations, policy and behaviour. In addition, the new circular business models needed for this strengthen the economy.

Such an integrated approach can make the Netherlands, where only a third of plastic waste is now processed with circularity, a country that provides guidance. As a result, by 2050, 87% of the then expected 1640 kilotons of plastic waste can be recovered (73% as polymeric raw material for new plastics, 14% prefabricated as part of a product). TNO bases this outcome on a new internally developed PRISM model.

We envisage solutions that will significantly accelerate the transition from four main angles:

1. Firstly, the plastic ecosystem has to change from a linear ('make-take-dispose') to a circular value chain. The whole chain of waste processors, recyclers, chemical converters, plastics producers, end users and brand owners must work together: from the design of products for re-use and recycling to the actual closing of the circle.

2. Secondly, innovations for new recycling technologies must be implemented quickly. In addition to mechanical recycling, this includes physical recycling (e.g. dissolving) and chemical recycling (e.g. pyrolysis, depolymerisation). All this is aimed at providing higher quality recyclate. The standardisation of plastics and additives would greatly simplify the value cycle of plastics, so that a closed loop is more likely to occur.

3.Thirdly, the accelerated transition to these circular value networks should be accompanied by the incorporation of the real costs of plastic products. At present, the hidden costs resulting from environmental pollution and toxicity are still paid for through, among other things, waste taxes, health insurance premiums and diminished health. Passing on the actual costs encourages the use of sustainable plastics and leads to an improvement in the quality of life and a reduction in hidden costs, so that the total costs remain more or less the same.

4. Finally, where sustainable solutions are concerned, producer responsibility and consumer willingness must be promoted through smart legislation and incentives (e.g. tax relief for sustainable initiatives). This complex transition requires citizens to be involved and their voices to be heard.

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Marinke Wijngaard, MSc

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